BLOG: Celebrating our ancient trees

1 May 2020

At City of Trees we are not only passionate about planting more trees but protecting and preserving the ones we have. Throughout the year we help to look after woodlands by ensuring the trees have enough light and room to grow as well as planting wildflowers and keeping paths and entranceways clear. This helps to boost the benefits for both people and wildlife.

Many of the woodlands in Greater Manchester are plantations and have been more recently planted however, in this blog we explore what it means when a tree or woodland is truly ancient!

What is an ancient tree?

Depending on the species, a tree may live for hundreds or even thousands of years but when a tree passes beyond maturity and is old in comparison with other trees of the same species, it can be said to be ancient.

Ancient trees gain their status through their age, however, the age at which a tree becomes ancient will vary according to the species. For example, an oak tree may be considered ancient hundreds of years before a yew tree. For this reason, ancient trees can also be identified through certain physical characteristics.  These include:

  • A process called retrenchment which results in a reduced canopy size and squat appearance
  • A wide trunk, considerably wider than those of individuals of the same species
  • A hollow trunk, which may not always be visible

Ancient trees are not to be confused with veteran trees which are younger in age but are developing the physical characteristics of ancient trees, either through aging or environmental factors. Simply put, a veteran tree is on its way to becoming an ancient tree but isn’t quite there yet!


How to date ancient trees

Typically each year, a tree will exhibit a growth ring which is visible when looking at a cross section of the tree trunk. Dendrochronology is a method which counts these rings to produce an estimate of the age of a tree and uses the width of each ring to gather historical and climatic data. However, to do this, a core sample or section must be taken from the tree which may not be appropriate for an ancient tree.  Also, inner growth rings of ancient trees may be missing because of decay.

Instead, measurements can be used to estimate age without causing any damage. A measurement of the girth (circumference) of a tree can be taken at a trunk height of 1.5m and this can be cross-referenced with measurements of trees of the same species with known ages to give an estimate of age.


Ancient woodlands

Ancient woodlands are woodlands which have been present since 1600 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland or since 1750 in Scotland.  At these times, maps were becoming more reliable and woods present then, were likely to have developed naturally - woodland planting before this time was uncommon.

Ancient woods can be separated into two categories: ancient semi-natural woodland and plantations on ancient woodland sites.

Ancient semi-natural woodland is woodland which has grown naturally and contains native tree species.

Plantations on ancient woodland sites are woodlands where the original trees have been replaced with native or non-native trees but retain other features of ancient woodland.

Despite their high ecological and heritage value, only 2.4% of the UK is covered by ancient woodland and many are under threat of destruction or damage from development and wider environmental impacts.


Why are ancient woodlands important?

Over the course of centuries, these woodlands have developed rich soils and ecosystems which support more threatened species than any other habitat in the UK and are therefore irreplaceable.

The unique conditions accommodate a high species diversity and richness of fungi, lichens and invertebrates with certain species considered indicator species. Common examples of indicator species include: bluebell, wild garlic and wood anemone.

What’s more, these woodlands have been ‘silent witnesses’ to hundreds of years of history and are valuable resources for heritage, recreation and archaeology.


Ancient trees of the world

Among some of the notable ancient trees around the world are…

  • Methuselah, USA, a Great Basin bristlecone pine, approximately 4,800 years old
  • Gran Abuelo, Chile, a Patagonian cypress, approximately 3,600 years old
  • Old Tjikko, Sweden, a clonal Norway spruce tree, approximately 9,500 years old
  • Sarv-e Abarkuh, Iran, a Mediterranean cypress, approximately 4,000 years old
  • Llangernyw Yew, Wales, estimates up to 5,000 years old
  • Jomon Sugi, Japan, a Japanese red cedar, estimates at least 2,000 years old


Ancient trees and woods of Greater Manchester

Greater Manchester is home to many areas of ancient woodlands, including…

  • Daisy Nook Country Park, Failsworth
  • Boggart Hole Clough, Blackley
  • Borsdane Wood, near Hindley
  • Etherow Country Park, Stockport

As well as ancient woodlands, there are hundreds of ancient trees that have been recorded and plenty more that remain undiscovered.

Record or find ancient trees near you using the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory and find trees meaningful to others using the advanced search via our Heritage Trees project.